Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Temple Trouble

I had an interesting experience in OCS once. After many days of combat rations, I finally came across some kitchen cooked food served up in a hospital. How I ended up there was quite unexpected (as I suspect all such cases would be).

It was the early part of Senior Term, a topo exercise in Tekong. We were supposed to pair up and go from landmark to landmark. On paper, that sounded easy. But Tekong maps, like most island maps then, were rather out of date. They were accurate on geographical features like contours, but on anything else, it was either old or absent. It was a challenge to navigate with such maps, especially when the topo objective involved navigating dirt tracks and finding dubious landmarks. In many ways it was like 'The Amazing Race'. You have to keep your eyes open, else it would involve doubling back and hoping the other teams render you some kind assistance.

My partner Yeang and I had come to a location where a small temple was supposed to be. Yeang, up to that point, had been a good companion. He wore an easy smile and was generally of good humour. But deep down, I didn't think he was the gung-ho type. I could tell from the way he boxed in the ring. He was mostly afraid of getting hurt. But this was topo, what could go wrong?

Along the way, we bumped into other groups. Apparently a checkpoint was hard to find and so we all ended up along the same general area trying to solve the riddle. That checkpoint was a Chinese temple. For all our efforts, it might as well have been a Chinese desert mirage.

The first group we met had Cadet CT Lee in it; he was one person nobody liked. But he knew how to angkat-bola with our platoon PC so he managed to get by. Lee appeared to have finally found what we were looking for. He didn't let on though, only to say as he hurried on "Yes, it was not easy." Big help that was. Lee was self-preserving that way. I wished we had blanket-partied him when we had the chance before we left OCS.

As the day wore on, I was beginning to realise that Yeang wasn't as great a topo partner as before. Besides being a scaredy-cat, he was also wishy-washy. Every suggestion I made was greeted with a "Yeah, I think so" or a "It could be that way... Maybe." Could? Maybe? They were not the words I wanted to hear! Where was the thinking??? In the end, I simply stopped asking him and trusted my own instincts instead.

We soon came to a narrow dirt track that led down to a small gulley. We bumped into Mooi and Seah coming up the other way. They were also looking for that elusive Chinese temple. Perhaps we were all too weaned on '70s Chinese kung fu movies and were half expecting to see a broken temple eaten by charred remains. You know, the sort where you gather straw for a bed and where the Beggar King could be found roasting a pigeon over a crackling fire?

It turned out that the temple in question was only a small concrete worship altar - the kind that's not taller than three feet and housed only one deity. It was also well hidden by some tall lallang and out of sight.

That's a temple? we asked. Seah and I looked at each other and shook our heads. Seah and I were the outdoorsy type and got along. He had joined us during Senior Term from SAFINCOS. He was one person I thought was a natural sergeant, someone who could lead and command men. Or lead by example. But he was sort of folksy. At times, he negotiated rather then demanded.

Both our groups decided to mark that so-called temple as the right target... so exasperated we were. We thought we could check with the instructors later to see if that was correct. Maybe under all that lallang was once a proper temple that the nearby villagers went to make prayers and seek divine intervention. As it was our last landmark, the next thing we needed to do was look for the nearest instructor checkpoint to report in and get our next set of coordinates/objective to travel to.

Mooi and Seah were not not yet done, so we went our separate ways.

As we seemed to have veered off course trying to locate that temple, finding our way back to our original location took some time. We were still on low ground so getting our bearings was quite difficult. And there was not a single high feature to be seen; everywhere were treetops. In any case, we soon found ourselves alone again on a quiet dirt track. Grass grew in the middle, which looked reassuring. It meant that the track was once used by vehicles. Maybe people still do, we comforted ourselves. It should then reflect on the map. In other words, the track implied civilization.

Yeang was ahead. I had hung back to check my map. Suddenly, he was flapping his arms and getting all panicky. At first I heard a buzz. It then grew louder into a whine. Under my breath, I uttered "Oh shit, bees!" and hurried to where Yeang was. I then realised that I did not have the smoke grenade with me. We had been advised to use it against aggressive insects such as these.

Fortunately for Yeang, he was still wearing a poncho as it had rained earlier. He flapped it like a bird. From afar, he looked funny, as if he was trying to fend off a large and invisible predator pecking relentlessly at him.

"Quick, where's the smoke?" I asked. "In the back pouch!" Yeang was almost screaming.

I reached in and pulled out the grenade; more black bees were quickly swarming. I pulled the grenade ring tab and held on, keeping my fingers from the top. I needed to find wind direction first and let out more smoke. That achieved, I threw the canister down. Thick smoke swiftly bellowed out as if a geyser had suddenly opened up in that dirt track. It caught wind and swirled around us.

Yeang scooped a poncho full of smoke and tried to crouch down to hide. I felt it was pointless as the smoke was very acrid and stinging, much worse than what the bees could do. And my eyes were already burning up. Run, I said to Yeang, gesturing in the direction where the smoke was drifting. Seeing no response, I had to half-drag him away.

Fortunately, the swarm was not as large as I had feared and soon dispersed. We didn't manage to run too far away and was still in a cover of some thin smoke. I asked Yeang if he was alright. He said he got stung and felt sick. I too was stung - twice in the back and one near my eye. I didn't know if that was serious as my eyes were also being irritated by smoke.

I tried to look for allergic symptoms on Yeang but could find none. Still, he acted as if he was dying. He claimed he was weak and couldn't walk. At first he tried to hobble but even that seemed too much. In the end, I had to fireman-lift him.

We had no signal set. The only solution was to find an instructor location as soon as possible and not bump into anymore bees!

I fireman-lifted Yeang when I could and laid him down when I got tired.

About half an hour later, I thought Yeang would recover. His facial color had returned and he didn't look that sick after all. But he still claimed he was very ill and dying.

Eventually, after an hour of plodding and struggle, I found the instructor location. It was a Land Rover sitting by the roadside along a metal (tarmac) road. I quickly explained to the duty instructor there what happened to us and that my fellow cadet Yeang seemed badly affected. He radioed in and quickly drove us to the exercise admin area by the coast. By then my eye had become swollen quite a bit.

Upon arrival, I could see my company OC and platoon commander gathered along with a gaggle of admin people. They looked concerned. As usual, my PC (Capt Ang) was critical of our failure. "How come you guys so careless!" Well, it's not as if we were handling bees and dropped them! was my unvoiced reaction. Plus, they came out of the blue. PC Ang may seem heartless with that remark but if you knew him, he was only being exacting. His fave phrase then was "Young man concerned..." - meaning we young men had to be built of sterner stuff and must be able to take all kinds of knocks. (Read more about PC Ang here)

A medic came over to examine us - Yeang first. The OC, hand on hips, asked Yeang how he felt. Yeang climbed down from the jeep and said (rather nonchalantly) "Sir, I'm okay." I was flabbergasted.

A while ago, he was aching and dying. I also impressed upon the instructor how serious my buddy's condition seemed to be. And now, he was behaving fine and less affected. I shot Yeang a glare that could have sunk an aircraft carrier that day. It was to tell him what an asshole he was. He looked sheepish and avoided it.

(At times like these, I wish I had a quick temper. I would have jumped over and throttled him.)

From that day on, whenever he saw me he would look embarrassed and avoid me. If he had apologised, maybe I would have forgiven him. But he never did. That was the last time we ever topo-ed together. I was also wiser to his kind. He was someone who greeted everybody with a smiley "Hey buddy, how are you" regardless of whether you were close to him or not. I guess it was his way of disarming people.

Another cadet, Samuel, was just as religious as Yeang. But with Samuel, he would have carried you to Timbuktu even if a shark was biting and attached to his leg. I almost joined the Commandos because of him.

Poh Chiak, my previous bunk mate (and JC mate), was a bit more streetwise and not so kind to Yeang's type after that temple incident. He would "hentum" him whenever he tried to give excuse for not carrying his load, or seemed to be skivving.

Fortunately for me, my condition was worse or else both Yeang and I would have been accused of causing a needless emergency. My eye was swollen, the bee's sting missing it by just millimeters!

PC Ang was concerned and insisted that I be sent to the nearest hospital for treatment and observation. Well, the nearest treatment center then was Changi Hospital and that was where I was admitted to. At the time CH was still that huge colonial building where the wards came with high ceilings. Such rooms were cool and airy: a place I really liked sleeping in.

I stayed two nights there until my swollen eye subsided. The hospital food tasted marvellous, reminding me of the Cantonese dishes my mom cooked back home. I guess after four days of combat rations, any cooked food would seem delectable. But really, I must give kudos to the chefs there. They changed my mind about hospital food and really made it difficult for me to return to the field after that. Besides, the pillow was soft, the mattress kind. And all I had to do was take that little blue pill and off to dreamland I would go. That trouble with Yeang would soon forgotten.

Previous story: Wake up Your Idea; Next story: The Call-Up

Wake Up Your Idea!

This was a phrase commonly used by the instructors in OCS during my time, especially by the Tactics Team instructors. It's our local refrain for "You'd better buck up!" or "Are you trying to be funny? Idle? Idiotic? Skivvy?" - all rolled into one.

When an instructor said "You better wake up your idea", it meant what's in your head was kinda wrong; it needed some kind of adjustment. In most cases, it was just a gentle admonishment. At other times, it necessitated some kind of punishment. 'Drop 20' usually. At worse, a burnt or forfeited weekend.

At times, we cadets were just trying to be efficient. But even that could be misconstrued as being smart-alecky trying to avoid work. Like the time we suggested using petrol more often to clean out our heavy weapons (such as the GPMG machine gun, M60 mortar and 84MM recoiless anti-tank gun especially after live firing. Using petrol was much faster than using the usual brass brushes and fenderlite (a cleaning cloth). It saved much muscle power and precious cleaning time!

"You better wake up you idea," was what our platoon sergeant Karu said, even before our suggestion got to the end of the sentence.

Although the petrol method was more efficient, I think the worry then was the possible build-up of inflammable vapors inside the guns. It might just catch fire the next time it was fired and blow us up to kingdom come. We cadets, however, thought otherwise. We had a long discussion in the bunk before bringing it up to Staff Sgt Karu. Surely a bunch of top-notch A-level students schooled in the best General Paper 'For-Against' argument tradition couldn't be wrong, right?

But our brilliance was dismissed with a single phrase: "You better wake up your idea."

After that, it became a kind of catch-phrase in our platoon. 'Eh, you better wake up your idea,' whenever someone tried to suggest something new, even if the idea was genuinely feasible and legitimate.

At times, it was done on purpose.

Q: Why don't OCS set up a laundry shop to wash our No.4? A: Eh, you better wake up your idea.
Q: Why don't the army give us proper running shoes? (This was before they gave us New Balance joggers) A: Eh, you better wake up your idea.
Q: Why don't the army ask the canteen lady to cook for them? A: Eh, you better wake up your idea.
Q: Why don't we train with the female Golf Company cadets? A: Eh, you better wake up your idea.
Q: Why can't we have a mini fridge in the bunk? A: Eh, you better wake up your idea.
Q: Why don't we have BBQs at the end of field camp? A: Eh, you better wake up your idea.

Well, you get the idea.

I think this phrase kind of went out of fashion for a while when WITS became the byword to help the SAF save much $$$ and be productive. Then, good suggestions were welcomed. If the suggestion box was empty, all suggestions were encouraged, including that one about the Golf Company cadets.

Nothing then was a 'Eh, you better wake up your idea.' It became 'Yeah, why don't you send it in. Maybe you'll win that $50 cash prize!'

WITS (work improvement teams) were everywhere. I guess the most affected people were probably the staff sergeants and warrant officers - the tradition bearers of the SAF. From 'Eh, you better wake up your idea' they had to hold their tongue and be encouraging instead. 'Really, that's something to think about.' I could just imagine Staff Sgt Karu rolling his eyes at the merest thought of that. He's the sort who liked to get things done quick, not hindered by fanciful ideas or elaborate schemes.

Speaking of waking up, that's the thing most people struggle with when they enter the army. If you had been a late sleeper and riser (like me), you'll be surprised at what a struggle that can be. You'll be even more surprised to learn that you can change!

The best thing is that early wake-up can become natural. Your internal alarm will somehow reset itself. You will likely discover this during field camp, that you don't even need to set a wristwatch alarm.

For us cadets, along with the China-made iron, some of us preferred to use those clunky China-made alarm clocks that could wake the dead. They are mechanical and can cause a ruckus every morning with their louder than usual ringing. Not the gradual beep-beep ones from electronic and plastic alarm clocks from Casio, Citizen, Rhythm, Q&Q, etc. These new alarm clocks unwisely encouraged sleepy heads to hit the Snooze button to get another 10 mins of "koon" time.

But I did upgrade to one such Casio when I became an instructor. I loved its robust boxy design (it could sustain multiple drops) and quirky color scheme. I am still using it today. For the longest time, I have been trying to remember where I bought that darn thing. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that I always enjoyed popping into watch shops to study horological designs. It was a case of one too many shops to pin the recall accurately.

The other night, I had a dream. I woke up looking at that alarm clock and remembering exactly where it was purchased. It was that watch shop below my old home in Marsiling. Lately, my mind has been playing tricks like that on me - being selective in what it wants to remember. Is it a coincidence that Total Recall (with Colin Farrell) is again playing in the cinemas? Really, I should probably tell my brain to 'wake up its idea' before it gets out of hand.

Previous story: My Bunk Mate; Next story: Temple Trouble

My Bunk Mate

I cannot recall cadet life in OCS without thinking of my Senior Term bunk mate then. He was a chap named YC Lim. Lim was a smallish chap who wore glasses and was Chinese educated. Perhaps that made him seem rather reticent in an English-speaking environment. I worried one time for him as I knew my platoon PC liked people who were a bit more gregarious; folks who stood out. To him, that was a hallmark of a leader. But YC was knowledgeable in his field craft, so our PC Ang had no cause to find fault with him.

YC Lim was not all that quiet in the right clique of people, especially with those who conversed in Mandarin. He would seek out folks like BK Chan, Tong, Eddy Sim during field camp. He liked folks who were perhaps leaned towards the literary.

At the core, YC was a decent chap who was helpful and ready to spring into action anytime - why we worked well as bunk mates. Sure, I was more English-pai (tribe) and he, the opposite. But we still got on fine. We helped each other to study and pass our many OCS knowledge tests.

I liked our evenings together best. YC was a very good classical guitar player. He confided in me once that he was asked to consider the classical concert route. He was THAT good. But YC was not sure though. I think the competitive environment gave him pause. And it wasn't a career one could say with definite surety that will yield dividends. What if he does not make a name for himself?

I have rhythm and can move myself to dance. But I am indifferent to music. It's a quality that stumps my friends. Later, as an engineer, I would help test VCRs and stereo sets for audio fidelity. I could, with my ear, tell if a sound was deficient in any way. Whether it was distorted, had harmonics or suffered from poor crossover. But I do not often listen to say, a favourite record. And I dislike using headphones. You'll never find me walking around with a Walkman or Discman. Or an MP3 player.

As an avid cyclist, I find that to be utterly unsafe. Maybe even for a pedestrian.

My lack of interest in music probably irked my friends wishing I was otherwise. I do love a good poem or limerick though.

That said, I was once a fan of Elvis Presley - saving money as a boy to buy a precious record - which in itself was startling. It took me a while to even be a fan of a football club, one of my favourite sports. I just find being a fan a rather mindless act. But I guess that's how it is suppose to be. You like something so much you are willing to go all lengths to get enough of it. I now see it as a way to celebrate a unique talent. I think my worry has always been fans doing the most absurd things to follow their idol.

When I was younger, I liked Tchaikovsky. I liked that his music was full of emotion and pathos. And I liked Richard Chamberlain playing him one time in a telemovie. I believed I would have been a good piano player if I had undergone some training. But I am not a natural though, unlike some. I am more a builder. I can build up a skill if you let me have the opportunity and time.

I, like many others, am envious of folks who have natural musical talent. It's like the gift of tongues; no effort required. How blessed is that?

So I was a bit taken aback when YC told me that he was not sure of music as a career. To me, I could tell that he was quite good with his choice of instrument. A wonderful plucker of chords. It would have been a waste if he kept all that just for campfires, BBQ functions and family reunions.

I said as much to him. "If you don't try, you'll never know." YC shrugged, as he was apt to do. One of his strengths was to ignore stuff he didn't like. He's an ennigma like that. I tried again to dissuade him. That's when he mentioned about the competitive nature of the music/concert business.

"I'd pay to hear you play," I said. YC laughed, grateful. He didn't say more and I was starting to get worried that he might just throw his talent into the What-Might-Have-Been pile.

I decided to push the issue a little further. "What did your teacher say?"
A practical thing to ask, actually.

"Er, it was my teacher who said I should explore being a concert guitarist," was the reply.

What? I said very loudly in my mind. Outwardly, I was calm. I was trying to respect my bunk buddy's wishes. But, isn't that endorsement enough? That skill WAS evident?

YC sighed. He seemed to have given it much more thought then I gave him credit for. Thinking back, perhaps he had other issues to consider. Family for one. Many concert players come from rich or upper middle-class families. Families who could afford music lessons or private music tutors. I felt it was impolite to probe, so I didn't.

YC offered to play me a tune. He asked if I had any favourites. I said Streets of Fire. He said he didn't know that one. I said just play me anything you like. And so he did. I laid on my bunk as YC plucked away at his guitar. The rapid way he moved his fingers, I could tell it was a complex piece. It was beautiful, it was classical. But remembering him like that breaks my heart. Years later I would discover him working in a component factory. He was in Sales. We spoke briefly over the phone. When I recalled our OCS days and the fact that he used to play his guitar, he simply said oh. That was a long time ago, he added.

I knew then that he did not pursue a concert dream. Perhaps it was not his dream but mine for him. But it seemed a far departure from the electronics component business. In Singapore, he's not the first such talented but practical person I've met. I've had friends who were very good sportsmen but gave up soon at the university. With such folks, there's always that what-if.

YC was my bunk buddy and I shall not judge him. I really didn't know him all that well to do that. But I would surely have liked to lay on that bunk and listen to him play one more time.

Previous story: Cadet Misc Equipment; Next story: Wake Up Your Idea

Cadet Misc Equipment

The new OCS (i.e. SAFTI Military Institute) is something, isn't it? It's  open and sprawling and get this, no fencing.

Back at Pasir Laba SAFTI in the 80s, we had to pass by a guardhouse each time we wanted to enter. We had to show our 11Bs as proof of identity, have our bags searched. For those not familiar with the Army, the 11B was our green IC. We would only get back our pink IC upon ROD, leaving National Service.

But after 9/11, this new OCS campus was not so easy-access after all. Some areas became out of bounds and ground patrols were increased. More electronic eyes were visible too, especially in the carparks. Not surprising since such e-eyes are getting cheaper by the minute and the software behind them more sophisticated. Forget motion-detect, that's basic. The buzzword now is threat analysis. Dropped your keys under the car? The system will automatically flag you as a probable bomb planter.

With such a sprawling and impressive military instititute, I am wondering, what life is like as a cadet today. I guess it would be pretty much the same as mine was in the 80s. In-out, no time to really enjoy the bunk, let alone the facilities available.

I was reading a thread entitled 'OCS FAQ' from an Internet forum the other day and was amused that not much has changed in terms of what cadets are equipping themselves for life in the OCS barracks. Even the jokes are the same!

Here's the list, with the poser's original comments in brackets [square ones are mine]:

1. Lots of black tape
2. Perm marker
3. Lots of black string (for securing loose items)
4. Clear tape (the very broad kind) [Duct tape?]
5. Masking tape
6. Ziploc
7. Jackknife
8. Pen, pencil, paper
9. Telt (wrapping paper) [Talc?]
10. Febreeze - a spray that removes odour from clothing - good when u need to re-wear no. 4 cos no time to wash!
11. Black rubber bands big and small
12. Materials for cleaning bunk and area.
13. Iron (yes, I brought my own iron in)
14. Starch (the spray kind)
15. Lots of hangers - the ones chosen as the standard kind for the platoon
16. Lighter (to burn cock hair)
17. Kiwi and brush - accessible at all times!
18. Tupperware - I use it to keep the aide memoir in my SBO - we were told to bring the aide memoir wherever we go.
19. Spare batteries

No.1: Black tape struck a cord in me. It was understandable back in my day. Our equipment were mostly leftovers from WWII. Brass was the military grade metal then. Sure, it doesn't rust but neither was it strong. The hooks and buckles don't work, so we had to black tape them up to make sure our SBO don't fall apart. Also, brass reflects light at night. The black tape (and black marker) helped to conceal their existence. Our trainers also disliked dangly bits, so we would roll excess strap-ends up and secure them up. How my Amah might roll up her hair in a bun and wrap it up in black tape.

Black tape was basically our scotch tape for afixing anything. In real life, it was actually electrical tape. It helped one time to even prevent one poor sod in our bunk from being electrocuted by our overused China-made iron.

No.5: The other useful tape was masking tape. Without this, our talc (clear plastic) wrapped maps would fall apart. It worked better than scotch tape because it was easier to peel and restick. We could also write with pens on it, like this map belonged to 'PL 10'. It was useful like that so if a map was found, we would kow who to extort 1206 money from (80% mark-down was the rate).

No.4: In my NS time, duct tape was something the professional car mechanics used, not found in every household. Like everything else, the influx of cheap China goods meant our households can now be equipped with anything from WD40 to star-shaped head screwdrives.

No.2: With so many similar-looking botak heads in the same platoon, identifying who is who can be a problem. That was my experience during BMT. A black perm (for permanent, not hair treatment) marker was essential to write your name on everything....short of the toilet roll.

No.3: The black string we used was the same kind temples used to give out with their Buddha pendants. It was ideal as it was slight stretchy and strong. It was also kind to the skin. We used it with our dogtags (sorry, our commanders hated that term) and also to secure anything we did not want dropped, like our bayonet, compass, map...especially stuff that we would take out now and then to use. It served the same purpose as keychain cords security guards like to use.

No.6: Ziploc bags was just getting to be more common-use during my time. Still, a simple clear polystyrene bag would suffice. We also recycled those white medicinal pill zip bags. They were especially useful for keeping money notes dry and some loose change. You never know when a street food vendor might turn up with some hot coffee or noodles.

No.7: A jackknife is a pocketknife. Jack is not Jill's partner; it just means spring-hinged. I've always wondered about the SAF-issued one: It is all shiny and made of stainless steel. Compared to the Swiss Army knife, it's positively simple. A blade and can opener is all it has. But it's heavy. I wished they had given us a lighter one. Really, a jackknife with a spoon and fork as well would be better. Maybe even a scissor function. Or compass. The list grows. In camp, we boys all hankered after a complicated Swiss Army knife. Not that we had any particular use for it. Somehow,owning one was 'cool'.

No.9: I used more talc (clear plastic sheet, not powder) in OCS than my entire school life. Who knew you needed them like tampons when the occassion called for them? Maps can't go without them just like how some panties cannot during some exercises.

No: 10: Febreeze? Man, during my time, all we had was foot powder or talcum that we'd bring from home. Prickly heat powder was the best. For a touch of class, we used lavendar scented onces. For feet, army powder win hands down. Seriously, they were very good.

No.11: We needed these to secure our aluminium mugs to its holding pouch. Also the smoke grenade to our SBO. We needed the larger one for our helmet to keep vegetation on inorder to remain hidden like a chameleon in the jungle. A small band was always needed keep the bayonet dagger in its sheath. Body powder kept these bands supple and sticking to one another in our warm weather.

No.13: No, we didn't need to bring our own iron. Each bunk shared their own. The shiny stainless steel one from China was the best. It's still being sold; and still just as simple. We would keep a candle to make sure its surface remained waxy smooth. Another popular brand was Panasonic from Japan. Both were capable of heavy duty use. But most liked the China-made one for its weight (which was very useful with starched uniforms).

No.14: The above list was compiled not long ago, so I'm surprised that starch spray made it to the list. We started using starch spray when it became available in the early 80s, first via our camp's 'Giftshop', and later at the Chinese emporiums. Ok, a starch spray does help make even an ordinary shirt look stuck-up.

No.15: No, we were not that anal as to standardised our clothes hangers even. Having the same color towels was bad enough.

No.16: Haha...we all had a lighter each but not to burn cock hair with. (It's an old joke, btw) The lighter was needed to light candles with (which was a standard fullpack item) and also solid fuel to cook with. As for cock hair, it helps to trim, not shave. Someone did just that and had itchy pubics for a couple of weeks. was terribly embarassing for him. Yes, burn any trimmed cock hair. It was rumoured during our time that people could make black magic with it. I rather just toss it into the wind.

No.18: Tupperware is a bit 'atas' and 'mahal' (Malay for branded and expensive). Any plastic container will do. I'd used one to keep first-aid and a sewing kit dry. Another to keep snacks and other sundry what-nots (like Mopiko). Diarrhea was always a concern during my time. Back then the remedies available were mostly TCM types: a miniature plastic bottle of 'tho orh san' (brownish powder) or 'po chai yun' (black pills kept in waxed balls). If you had diarrhea, the common medicine from the clinic was some thick chalk-like white liquid as unpleasant as Fishermen's fish oil. These days you get a grey-green capsule (Loperamide) and it works like magic.

With shops like Daiso around, one can buy very small 'Tupperwars' for keeping something like an aide memoir dry in the breast pocket. (An aide memoir is basically a quick fact-checker, like if you had forgotten the steps to giving an Ops Order) or what to do if an enemy starts shooting at you. Page 23: "1. Take cover." Oops, too late.

What's missing from this list are the aluminiun tent pegs we would bring along for field camp. Since we always lose one or two each time, having spares in the bunk is useful. The other thing is body powder. Prickly powder is a tradtional favourite. My platoon mate Chew from my BMT days would powder himself down excessively after each shower. He would look like some dough ready for deep-frying. I guess some habits from home take time to get over!

No.19: Spare batteries are not just for the personal music player or torchlight. With modern warefare, batteries are essential, especially when soldiers are equipped with netcentric devices such as PDAs, GPS and AR (augmented reality) devices. But heck, such equipment can take as many as eight AAA batts each. The weight does add up. Thankfully, there are many chemical batteries around. They are powerful when activated and can provide electrical juice for far longer and stronger than even the best rechargeables from 7-Eleven stores. The best part is that they come in powder form. Just add water. In the future, a soldier's helmet will also act a solar panel, not to mention his poncho (raincoat). Do you know the surface area afforded by a poncho? It's huge in solar energy terms.

What modern thing would a cadet need these days?

Me? I would bring a e-reader. If I am the head of OCS, I'll make sure every cadet gets one. I'll load it up with all sorts of useful first-account war stories from WWII, Vietnam War, Korean War and the recent Middle-East ones. It'll teach as well as get everyone in the right mindset. And of course, all back issues of Modesty Blaise for entertainment reading. This comic book (and novel) title is more than just about a female spy and gang leader. It's about being combat smart and psychologically strong. Women, as they often do, show the way. There's a lot to learn from the stories. And who can resist a spy-spy kind of story?

Previous story: OCS Barrack Life; Next story: My Bunk Mate 

OCS Barrack Life

The old OCS in Pasir Laba in the 80s was quite new then. There were seven blocks of barracks which were named Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, and Golf.

Typically each intake of cadets would occupy two blocks of barracks. In March, it was Delta-Foxtrot (A-level batch); in June, it was Bravo-Echo (another A-level batch); and then in September, it was Alpha-Charlie (the Poly batch). The Golf block was the nearest cadet barrack to the main gate by distance and opposite the cookhouse. It housed the female career cadets. As male cadets, we were naturally curious about our opposite-gender brethren in that building. It was always a joy to bump into them during meals at the cookhouse. Given the uneven gender ratio in OCS, I am sure these girls knew how endangered a species they must appear to be. And how unnerving it must have been to have always a dozen of eyes checking them out each time when were at the cookhouse!

I must admit we guys have planned many a panty raid in our minds in our spare time. But the threat of expulsion from the school kept us from achieving that prank.

But each time I saw a Golf Company cadet, I wondered what compelled her to join the army in the first place. In my mind then, the girls had better career opportunities in the private sector than us guys. Wouldn't it be better to find work as a secretary, nurse, HR honcho, receptionist then as an unglam army girl?

We used to think only the ugly ones joined the nation's armed forces. But at Golf Company were a few sweet-faced ones. So what reason did they have?

Perhaps it was just pure male chauvinism on our part to think like that. My own sister joined the air force. She did so to further her studies in Engineering. She wasn't butt ugly. Maybe "one-of-a-kind" would be an apt description.

But OCS was new then. The bunks were either for two persons or four. It reminded me of the new hostels in NTU which I visited as a student during a Pre-U seminar in my final year at CJC . A bunk, a built-in cabinet (with a top compartment to put that bag from home) and a shared desk.

It was functional yet cozy.

Did we get to enjoy our time in the bunks?

Well, I remember my OCS time as being very busy. If not PT, it was classroom work. If not that, then it was field work. The bunk became just that, a bunk: a place to lay our heads in during night. If we were in camp, that is. Which wasn't often during senior term.

As for facilities, there weren't any on each floor. No pantry even. We did everything in our bunks except to go to the toilet and bathe. OCS was a camp, not  a prison! The block itself had a couple of briefing rooms. The rest of the offices were taken up by respective company staff or the tactics team instructors. My batch was the second or third last batch to be trained by such teams. Afterwards, it was switched over to the mentor system (of which my batch were the first instructors). There were seven teams then, each specialising in more than one military subject. Their offices were spread among the cadet company blocks.

Each cadet company block had its own exercise yard - a small patch big enough to hold two chin-up bars. Chin-ups were often our Achilles' Heel during IPPTs (physical fitness test), so at every opportune moment, we were made to 'practice' before heading out...even before lunch. We did them in our No. 4s too.

For leisure, we cadets were given a cadet mess next to the cookhouse - 'mess' being army-speak for a casual hangout place afterhours. But who would want to be seen at a mess during active training time? Or even afterhours? Both officers and NCOs would think you were skivving. If a cadet is not kept busy, something is wrong! Do we not have boots to polish? Clothes to iron? Subjects to revise and study? Activities to plan for the next day? Routine orders/duties to carry out?

The cadet mess thus became a kind of white elephant. It was used mostly by cadets who had to do weekend duties. During my time, the mess was equipped with a TV and VCR machine, a midi hi-fi system, a rattan sofa set, and a drinks machine. The cadet mess was also stocked with many copies of Pioneer magazine. Haha... as if our own immersion in green wasn't enough!

Each batch of cadet intake would have its own mess committee responsible for organising cadet-life related events and such. These activities were few and far in-between. I remember we had a casual nite once together with the Golf cadets before we passed out (i.e. graduated from OCS, not dead drunk). Still, mess fees were always collected despite the absence of events. $5 for what again? we would ask each time. It's like paying for that time-share apartment we hardly get to use!.

My vivid memories of the cadet mess was as a place to kill time, usually before an overseas training trip. Dressed in civies and all ready, we would all talkcock in the mess until it's time to board that three tonner to the airport. Or it was a place to hangout until it was time to book-out. The cadet mess was after all, nearer to the main gate nearer to freedom.

There was a library in SAFTI at the time in that main building just after the main gate. It was the Infantry HQ. It's a pity no time was made for us cadets to use that library, else we could have learned so much more about military tactics and leadership life lessons. It was only during my instructor stint at OCS that I found time to read the many excellent first-person account war stories there. Philip Caputo, Harold G Moore, Neil Sheehan, Bernard Fall, etc. There were even gems like 'A Guerilla Handbook on Assassinations' from South America with some very over-the-top illustrated methods. It was pocket-dictionary sized, which must have been convenient for the novice secret agent bumping into a target unexpectedly. "Quick, I need a good killing method now!" LOL.

Books like that are depressing to read after a while. I much preferred Spy vs Spy in MAD magazine. At least they were ingenious and made you laugh. And I much preferred books that made me a better infantry officer.

As an instructor, my bunk was in the old E Block right across the field. It was a multi-storey building reminiscent of that old primary school or converted art facility at the junction of Short Street and Selegie Road. This E-block was very sparse and looked deserted most of the time, like a building emptied for demolition. It was there that I first read another war epic, The Lord of the Rings. Took me three tries to get past the first five pages. I then fell in love with it. I also read a lot of Robert Ludlum.

Nine months is a long time to spend in any one place. Even though our bunks seem more like way stations than living quarters because of the little time we spent there, it was still home. My fondest memory is one where I would lay in my bunk bed looking at the clear inky sky during full moon. I would have my Sanyo walkman and headphones on playing Streets of Fire - an 'in' song then. All would be at peace. It was a young man's life. A life of adventure, a life of comradeship. I knew then to make full use of it and I did.

Previous story: An Apple in OCS; Next story: Cadet Misc Equipment

An Apple In OCS

Learning about computers during my NS was something I certainly did not envisage upon enlistment. Nor did I imagine I would end up teaching about explosives as well.

The computer part I first encountered during my Infantry Pioneer training course at Gillman Camp. The School of Combat Engineer had an e-learning lab composed of Apple IIe computers.

These e-lessons were composed of mostly affirmative and calculative (math) exercises. They were very suitable for multiple choice tests as well. During lessons, we used the programs to help us calculate and optimize placement of explosive charges; acquaint ourselves with plant equipment specs (like the diggers and lifting cranes); bridgework: the calculation of span requirements, manpower and store; subject matter tests, etc.

These e-lessons on the Apple IIe machines were all designed using the Apple Turtle logo program and also in BASIC.

Lta Lin, our course commander, was also the hands-on chap, why we often saw him little during outside  fieldwork. He would be squirreled away in his lab/classroom tweaking programs and lessons. I think he much preferred that. He would later try to run his own computer firm. Lin was the quintessential engineer with the dispassionate and disembodied voice. Given his demeanor, he could well have been a preacher, no doubt putting a lot of parishioners to sleep with his sonorous voice.

When I returned to OCS as instructor after the course, life quickly settled into a routine. It basically followed a school timetable. Morning and afternoons would be punctuated with lessons. Sometimes these lessons involved weapons. We often knocked off 'work' at around 4.30pm, latest 5pm. Then it would be off to the squash courts. Squash was the in-thing then, as was snooker and jogging. It helped that our OC was a keen squash player.

When the cadets leave for overseas training, our time was even freer. It was during one of these days that we were introduced to the Apple II+, the compatible version of the Apple IIe. 'Compatible' to mean pirated.

It all began innocently enough. It was during a live-firing session at the Demo(lition) range in Pasir Laba. Fong (my fellow team officer and 2 I/C) and I were chatting with Liu, a Mentor officer from Alpha company.  Our conversation somehow veered into the topic of computers and how it was becoming popular. Liu then asked if we were interested to see one. (I had thought Liu's family ran an electronics component shop in People's Park Center (the Sim Lim Square of its day), but actually, he was just being entrepreneurial. He had access to some computers via a supplier.)

Being engineers (I was to study that in the local uni; Fong was going into Biology), we were naturally piqued. Besides, the two new officers who had just joined our Demo Team were Mechanical graduates from SP (Singapore Polytechnic). They were even more interested and savvy (as I would find out later).

So one afternoon, Liu brought his Apple II+ computer to our office, a corner one located on the Golf Company (female cadet) premises. It looked exactly like the Apple IIe, perhaps a shade lighter in beige (it was after all a compatible). There was even a tin plate at the front to say Apple II+. We would later replace that with the more authentic rainbow-banded Apple logo. That logo was such a cherished item at the time, like the Mercedes car 3-pointed star people would break off to keep.

Liu removed the top cover to show us the insides. The cover was a little difficult to dislodge and needed the right technique. A gentle thump of the palm was it.

Inside the Apple II+ was a large PCB board. On the left a power supply, at the back some slots for expansion cards, at the center the motherlode 6502 processor chip - the brains of the machine. That's the first time I was looking inside a computer and it was rather underwhelming. I had expected more bells and whistles - more shiny bits even. But I was very curious how all those components linked up to do what it did.

Liu then showed us a trick. "You see," he said. "This is even better than the original." He then proceeded to short out one of the resistors located dead centre on the motherboard (i.e. the PCB). Afterwards, the sound from the machine's speaker became very loud. "See, your games will never be the same again," Liu grinned as he said that.

Perhaps that's the reason why music from Broderbund's '80s most famous games like Lode Runner and Choplifter still echos residual in my head today!

As I would learn later during my Engineering course, what Liu did was to remove a voltage limiting resistor from the circuit leading to the speaker. It's a simple trick that does no lasting damage to the machine.

Fong, who was observing all this while, asked: "So, how much is this going to cost us?"

Liu gave a short laugh. "Phee, ching phee." Which was Hokkien for cheap, real cheap.

$700 was the figure. "This is one of the best compatible in the market. My family won't sell anything of less quality," added Liu. $700 was a lot of money in those days. Much more if you were an NS man struggling with just $99 a month.

Truth be said, Lim could be dressing up a Hyundai for a Jaguar for all we know. But he was a likeable fella with bright eyes and an easy confident manner. This fella would go places some day, was my assessment at the time. And he did, doing stints in IT software development and process-change management at major MNCs. He was actually a guy who could be trusted (or someone who inspired trust).

Fong and I then decided to share to buy one. We weren't all that hard-up about a computer but Fong was thinking of taking a computer language course as a practical aside. He would later go on to study Cobol part-time. Cobol then was the default programming language in the business world. For scientists and engineers, it was Fortran and Pascal. Speaking these ancient names now makes them sound positively medieval, like some long-dead artist. That's how fast (and much) the computer industry has moved on. We now do not talk about programming languages but apps. Apple or Android. In any case, most software programmers use C++. (I even learned something called Turbo C)

In the subsequent days that followed, we spent whatever free time we had learning more about this plasticky machine called the Apple II+. We learnt to connect it up to a green screen monitor, two 5 1/4-inch floppy drives and a joystick. From that day on, we also tried to get our hands on whatever computer magazines were available.

Most popular were the ones that dealt with Apple BASIC. I especially liked the magazines that ran economical programming code contests - the two-liner ones.

It's incredible to watch when such programs run. The complex stuff they do on screen was like some mind-steam (erection). And oh, did I mention that back then, the onboard memory of such pioneering home computers was only 64KB. Not 1 MB or 2GB. Other brands had less, like 48KB.

The other two junior officers, Richard and William (who would take over our duties once we RODed) were more savvy. Richard even bought his own ZX Spectrum 8-bit computer, a slim machine with rubber keys that was produced by UK's Sinclair Research. It was positively svelte and futuristic. The Spectrum became very popular and had many games programmed for it. We would load (and save) these games via a cassette tape recorder. A game took some minutes to load and would make screeching/grating sounds much like how data modems would sound like later in the 90s when loading up. The Commodore 64 and BBC Micro all behaved the same.

Richard later learned graphics programming on his own with his Spectrum. All that pixel counting and machine assembly language coding. I was more interested in using the computer to control stuff like in automation or weather sensing (which I later implemented using an IBM XT PC). And play games.

Oh, what games we played in that Demo Team office with these computers. Lode Runner, Choplifter, Zork, Space Invaders, Brick, Karateka, etc, were the more popular titles. Many times, these games were played with Air Supply songs in the background. We were like four kids with new toys! Yup, those were indeed very enjoyable times in that Demo office in OCS during the 80s. Right up to the day Fong and I RODed!

[Here's a to-buy list from the 80s that I unearthed recently from a box of nostalgia docs (see pix below):

A compatible 64KB Apple II+ with two efficient and high-speed drives and green monitor. Includes:

- CP/M card;
- 40/80-column card (manual or auto color);
- Disk drive interface;
- Printer interface;
- PAL color card.

System includes a Logitec FT-5002 NLQ (near letter quality) printer (still under warranty). Price: $1770, includes latest software in graphics and business. Manuals provided free.]

Previous story: Torture Training; Next story: OCS Barrack Life

My collection of old PC and Apple references

Torture Training

During my time in OCS in the early 80s, there was such a lesson called Evade and Capture, a POW lesson. I don't remember much of it except that we had to mount a mission to rescue a captured comrade. We failed miserably. I don't know if it was because we were inept or that the mission itself was planned that way. I mean, how could you succeed if your adversary knew you were coming? Or that the inmate was secured in a guarded POW camp. How to clobber a guard to get to him? We were after all NS men in disguise. Maybe if they had used Boon Lay gangsters as the Red Force (enemy), maybe we wouldn't mind clobbering a few!

Oh, there's a torture part to E&C. To us, it was always an accident waiting to happen. In fact, a high-profile incident did happen. A cadet was hung up from the ceiling for far too long. Another case involved holding down a cadet's face into a barrel of water way until he almost choked.

These acts by themselves were not terribly bad acts of torture. But when done to cadets, it was like a teacher slamming a kid into a wall. (I've seen that happen, carried out by a decorated teacher no less. Yes, kids can get on one's nerves. But restrain is one thing we adults need to demonstrate to the younger ones around us.)

But that's the thing about "simulated torture" - both parties do not know how far to go. The one who plays POW wouldn't know how much he should resist. The one playing the torturer obviously wants to inflict more suffering to "make it real". But how real is real?

Here-in lies the rub. I feel simulated torture is more voyeuristic in intent than real instruction. The trainer just want to see how far you can go with torture. But, what exactly is the passing grade? And to whose standards? I think these are valid questions that course planners need to ask - and conscientiously ask and demand answers to - before setting out to do something. Torture is not something done and then to say "Sorry, we erred".

I also feel the focus should not be on how much torture a POW can endure but more on the kind of strategies he/she should aptly apply if captured. There are tricks to inure the mind and spirit against such cruel and intentional abuse. Sad to say, I did not get any such enlightenment during my time in OCS. I was taught to say only my name and serial number, like some kindergarten kid.

Look, if you have to give information to a captor, in what form should it take? And what if they torture your comrade to get you to 'talk', then what? Are you to submit totally or simply ignore the suffering of the other poor sod? (Research has shown that torturing another person is the most effective way to get the co-operation of another.)

In such a pressuring situation, how can you begin to negotiate for your safety as well as your comrade's? How can one define the psychological profile of such a captor/torturer?

There are many situations and issues to consider when one is captured. For example, what is your right as a POW under international law? Is the opposing army even party to this treaty at all and has respect for its values and rules?

I wonder if our army is prepared for this kind of information dissemination in the event of war. Certainly, it is good to know. Remember the British in Singapore surrendering to the Japanese during WWII? I am sure none expected the kind of harsh treatment they eventually received as POWs. The Burma-Thai Death Railway construction, for example, where as many as 16,000 allied POWs perished. If they had known that the Japanese Army were treating their POWs like slaves, wouldn't it have been better to go out in a blaze of glory than surrender?

The Bataan Death March is another example to consider, where hundreds of officers and NCOs were summarily executed immediately after surrender. Yes, it was a tactic to cut off leadership among the POWs. But it was still a cruel act.

Besides, can 'forced confessions' be used as a tactic to deceive rather than surrender?

So, in a lesson such as Evade and Capture, we had many questions to ask just as there were many answers to deliberate upon. What's the game plan now in our current SAF? I wonder.

Previous story: Platoon of Characters II; Next story: An Apple in OCS

A Platoon of Characters II

Besides those mentioned in the earlier blog, my platoon at Delta Company OCS had other interesting characters.

There was "jipun-kia" or Japanese kid. He wasn't Japanese but a Teochew chap who, with his wide Asian face, square jaw, slitty eyes and pencil-thin moustache, looked like one WWII Jap soldier. He even ran like one, you know, in a sort of upright way with little mid-rift motion. It had to do with his posture, which was arched with tummy out. He did look fierce, but was actually quite quiet and gentle. I remember him as being fastidious with cleanliness and his laundry.

I had three platoon mates who came to OCS with me from BMT. David and Kheng Hua, both from Echo Coy Platoon 17. Ian Chiak was from Echo Coy Platoon 20 (same barrack block in ITD). Ian Chiak was the sort of Hokkien-pai type who spoke his mind no matter what. He often spoke in a mixture of Hokkien, Chinese and English. I like guys like him because really, in life, it doesn't matter how you speak. It matters more what comes out of your mouth. If Ian Chiak was cussing, he was cussing with reason. He and I got on well because we were on the same wavelength on many things, at times unspoken. He laughed easily and liked to joke in his colloquial manner. Another trait we shared was a devil-may-care attitude. If we had to be gung-ho, we would. Ian Chiak knew I spoke English better, but it did not bother him. Instead, he would ask me for words he was keen to pick up. That's what I liked about folks like him. They are comfortable in their own skins.

Kheng Hua  wasn't tall but exuded a very calm presence...due in no small part to his large steady eyes, luminescent skin, and high forehead. If he wore a Buddhist priest's robes, you would think he had achieved nirvana or something. -That was how calm he looked! In person he was not hurried, did not not look for more things to do than was necessary and was contented to do well within his boundaries. But he was helpful and sociable nevertheless. He looked good in make-up too - something we found out during our OC Evening concert (a kind of "before Passing Out Parade (PoP)" event). He was one of the 'contestants' in a beauty pageant. I dunno, army fellas then liked to dress up as girls to perform in sketches, take part in beauty contests, etc. - probably to make up for the fact that there weren't any girls or women around in the first place. But why couldn't we have a sketch with normal guys in them? Or even a theatre-like stage play?

No one in my platoon can quite forget this fella called Mooi. He liked to sing Chinese opera and was one of those 'straight' persons who were clueless about what they were clueless about. This meant he sometimes asked very odd and obvious questions. If you were worldly and savvy, you would probably not like to hang around him. But Mooi had his own world view and was happy to be living in his own universe (with Chinese opera soundtrack). He was both strong and strong-willed and at times full of his own reasons, why I supposed he passed OCS even if he did not command well. (He once caught a big spider and kept it in a jar and said he is going to fight spiders with it. Strange.)

Adrian joined us from SAFINCOS before the start of Senior Term. His dark skin and often serious demeanour made him look fierce and unfriendly. He also spoke in a deadly monotone which gave the impression he didn't have anything interesting to say. But he was quite a colorful character who was more comfortable in his own Teochew dialect. He told us he was once a gangster - why he wasn't very expressive - but got over that troublesome phase of his life. He was hoping to join the army. I think he was rather filial to his mom and spoke of his family often.

Seah was another chap from SAFINCOS. He was more of the sergeant mould, ready to command people and get things done. He smiled easily and had a cheerful disposition. We got on well. Both Seah and Adrian were hands-on folks, which suited me fine. Sometimes you need folks like that around to get things done in a jiffy. Or solve on-site problems like during field camp. They were great pals to have when on overseas training and missions.

Adrian might be on the serious side but when he told stories, they cracked us up. Mostly they were oft-color ones but very funny. His dead pan look certainly helped. PC Ang also seemed to pick on him a bit more. But in his case, I think PC Ang meant well.

Chee (aka Johnny) was the artist in the platoon. I mean he could really sketch and draw. He and Bennett were the ones behind the production of our Delta Company batch book. The sections inside were overlaid with funny illustrations of our time in OCS, all drawn on translucent drafting paper. Chee was probably the most articulate chap in our midst and quite the philosopher. I'm more the practicalist and the both of us would engage in long discussions of various topics under the sun. Somehow, he reminded me of Alan Alda of TV's M*A*S*H in manner and gait. But Johnny had a more raspy and soft voice. When Johnny smiled, his eyes would disappear. He had a bit of a protruding lower lip which got badly bruised during boxing. His stooped posture and the rest of him certainly wasn't built for highly physical contact sports like boxing and rugby. Johnny was also rather the pacifist and often, I was tempted to call him "old man" because he was such an old soul too.

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